Catalyst, Oppenheimer and the Necessity for Choice

Displaying Star Wars Catalyst by James Luceno.jpgThe beginning of this month saw not only the slow ramping up of publicity for Rogue One, but also the release of Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, a prequel-novel, by James Luceno. This post will be hald review, half discussion and although I will do my best to avoid spoilers there will be a discussion of the plot so if you haven’t read Catalyst yet and want to go in unspoiled perhaps return later. So, what’s Catalyst about?

War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine’s top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic’s, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key.

There is more to the blurb but that would be entering into spoiler territory quite significantly. Catalyst tells the story of Galen Erso and his research, the chaos that the New Republic finds itself in and the choices made by everyone. Catalyst is set during one of the most fascinating time periods in the Star Wars universe, spanning perhaps the last third of Revenge of the Sith and the years immediately after. Luceno, hence, has the task of showing us the downfall of the Republic from the common people’s perspective. Although the Ersos and Krennic are hardly “common”, they also aren’t Jedi or high-profile politicians, yet. As such, their perspective on what is happening in their universe is drastically different from the emotional responses seen in RotS. Whereas  Krennic is, in many ways, a typical wannabe politician, desperate to climb and willing to do whateve, the Ersos offer a very interesting casestudy.

As a scientist Galen Erso is not interested in politics since what happens in the world of the living has hardly any relevance to his research. This doesn’t always make Galen the most likeable of characters, yet his unintentional obliviousness is very realistic. If we consider everything happening in the world right now, which is only one planet after all, how much do you really know about it all? To what extent do you care about which politician is at the top, as long as you can still do your job? And aren’t all politicians equally corrupt anyway? No reason to prefer one over the other or believe that the system has anything to offer to you. By painting this kind of “world”, Luceno and the Lucas Story group manage to make both Catalyst and Rogue One incredibly relevant stories to our time.

Head and shoulders portrait

Galen Erso’s profession as a scientist also makes him interesting for other reasons. In a build-up reminiscent of the Cold War Arms Race, the Republic and the Separatist seemingly try to build the biggest, baddest weapon first. Knowing what we know, that Palpatine/Sidious is playing on both sides and that the whole Clone Wars are a manufactured conflict, adds a bittersweet edge to the conviction with which some people in Catalyst argue for their own side. Galen argues for science and for pacifist principles, which sometimes feels almost hypocritical. His unwillingness to choose sides, even to stand with the New Republic, goes against the grain and it is reminiscent of the position many scientists found themselves in during WWII and the Cold War. The most famous example of these scientists is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who became known as one of the ‘[fathers] of the atom bomb’. Upon witnessing the first atomic test explosion he was reminded of a phrase from the Bhagavad Ghita:

‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’

After WWII he lobbied for international control of atomic power and suffered political scorn and punishment as a consequence.

The similarities between Oppenheimer and Galen Erso are undeniable. Oppenheimer had left-wing leanings and never led a big project, and he had an “overweening ambition” which guaranteed to his superiors he would be dedicated to the creation of the bomb. Similarly, Galen Erso, as a pacifist and lone wolf, does not lend himself naturally to leading any kind of research project. But his singular mind possesses a singular focus which Orson Krennic knows he can and must use, if the Death Star is ever to be built.  Rogue47 said in an earlier post about Jyn’s characterisation in the Rogue One trailer:

“This is not about her identity, this is about a choice she must make.”

– Identitiy & Choice

Galen Erso is in a similar position in Catalyst. He is unwilling to make a choice and refuses to choose a side for such a long time that the choice is almost non-existent by the time he chooses. His involvement in the building and designing of the Death Star is something that grows slowly and naturally throughout the book, Luceno giving the reader a lot of insight into Galen’s thoughts. Driven both by a desire to provide by his family but also, and more importantly, by an inability not to want to work on the fascinating secret at the heart of the power of the Death Star, he joins in Krennic’s research in energy without understanding its final purpose: weaponisation, death, destruction.

Galen Erso’s “blindness” to the world is counteracted by his wife’s awareness. We first met her in the second international trailer in which she had the following advice for her daughter:

Jyn, trust the Force.’

Unlike her husband, Lyra is more in touch with the world (read: galaxy) she lives in. Working as a surveyor, she has not only seen more of the galaxy, she is also connected to it. (SPOILER WARNING!) Although not a Jedi, Catalyst suggests strongly that she is Force sensitive, or at least a believer in its power and presence. As the New Republic becomes the Empire and begins to take advantage of Outer Rim worlds for its own nefarious ends, she grows in outrage. Whereas Galen doesn’t want to make a choice, Lyra’s has always been made. She supports her husband, but with her eyes open. Whether its Krennic or the Empire’s story about the Jedi’s “betrayal”, Lyra forms her own judgement and doesn’t just follow. As the novel’s story unfolds, the reader comes to rely m
ore and more on Lyra for a sense of what is right until. By switching between different narrators (Galen, Lyra, Krennic and others) Luceno brings to the front how, eventually, everyone does have to make a choice. Not choosing for either bad or evil for the sake of neutrality only makes it easier for those willing to do evil.

Catalyst is a brilliant prequel-novel, in the sense that it reveals nothing about the story of Rogue One but has a lot to say. It introduces us to key characters such as the Ersos and Krennic, but also features appearances of other well-known canon characters. It sets up the importance of choice, on finding what is right and fighting for it. And finally, we have a sense of where Jyn comes from. Her childhood occurs in one of the most contentious and divided times of the galaxy, in which neither side is truly defined and yet clear sides exist, a time that requires quiet heroism and incredible sacrifice. By introducing us to her parents, to their struggle to stick with a choice or make a choice, to face the world as it is or deny it, we can get a sense of the struggle ahead of her but also of the strength from which she comes. This novel, despite weaknesses here and there, bodes very well for the film about to hit theatres worldwide!

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